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Inauguration work enters home stretch

Preparations for President Obama's second-term inauguration have entered their final stages. 

Construction workers are erecting the inaugural platform, congressional leaders are touting the bicameral event and the office of the Architect of the Capitol (AoC), which handles physical preparations, is getting ready for its largest recurring public event. 

“The planning really starts right after the past inauguration, where we get the team together a month or two after inauguration and we scrub everything that happened, what went well, what didn’t go well,” Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers said.

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Ayers is the eleventh Architect of the Capitol and served as acting architect for Obama’s first inauguration.

According to Ayers, AoC involvement dates back to the 1860s, when the event began to involve more public participation.

“We’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said.  

An estimated 1.8 million people attended Obama's first inauguration. The crowd was not only the largest for a presidential inauguration, but the largest for any event in the history of the city, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC).

The crowds are expected to be smaller for Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on Jan. 21 — the day after a private ceremony in the White House on Jan. 20. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution states that presidential terms end on Jan. 20. 

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is estimating that 600,000 to 800,000 riders will travel on the bus and rail system for Inauguration Day. Four years ago, there were about 1.5 million passengers, a record high for the transit authority.

It is the seventh time in United States history that the mandated inauguration date falls on a Sunday. Following tradition, the public ceremony will take place on Monday, which is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

The undertaking is a massive joint effort, involving security and logistics coordination between as many as 20 groups from local, state and federal agencies. More than $1.2 million in funding for the ceremony was approved and signed into law last year. 

“The platform and the ceremony itself are paid for by the House and Senate ... , coming out of federal dollars. It’s going to cost about $1,200,000, which is less than last year. We’re coming in under budget, even though it will hold as many people,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the JCCIC, during a preview of the platform construction this week.

House and Senate members of the JCCIC, which has had the responsibility of planning and executing the swearing-in ceremony since 1901, hammered the symbolic first nail of construction on the inaugural platform, alongside Ayers, in September.

On a brisk December afternoon, construction workers in hard hats and reflective vests moved about the inaugural platform site, assembling metal scaffolding, measuring and sawing wood planks.

The 10,000-square-foot amphitheater-style platform can hold more than 1,600 people. The president, vice president and their families, House and Senate members, Cabinet members, the Supreme Court justices, former presidents, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the diplomatic corps will fill the space on Inauguration Day. 

On the upper west terrace, a series of bleachers will be constructed to hold several hundred more participants, including choirs from Brooklyn, N.Y., and Cleveland, Tenn. “in a bipartisan contribution to the inaugural,” joked Schumer.

Thirty-thousand chairs will also be assembled on the west front of the Capitol for guests. 

“If you visit Mount Vernon, George Washington is supposed to have said that the most important inauguration was not the first one, but the second one, to see if we could either reaffirm or transfer power. So, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, we’re looking forward to this event,” said JCCIC member Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), standing with Schumer.

For Ayers, who spends the night before inauguration in his office, the day is an exercise in detailed management and often involves the minutia of sound and lighting technicalities, rather than reflections on the peaceful transfer of power.

“I’m sitting there with a police radio in one ear and thinking about all of the plans that we made, thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong. ‘What happens if the lights go out? What happens if the president is giving his address to the nation and our sound system goes out?’ ... I don’t relax until the presidential motorcade gets off of Capitol Square and we turn the president over to the executive branch,” he said.

Once the president delivers his speech and attends the congressional luncheon, responsibility for the day’s events shift over to the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). The 2013 committee, which was officially launched last week, manages the inaugural parade and balls and is responsible for raising money for presidential inauguration festivities.

The president’s inaugural committee drew attention in recent weeks for reversing its policy of four years ago. It will now accept corporate donations to help fund events.

“Our goal is to make sure that we will meet the fundraising requirements for this civic event after the most expensive presidential campaign in history. To ensure continued transparency, all names of donors will be posted to a regularly updated website,” said PIC spokeswoman Addie Whisenant in an email to The Hill.

The committee won’t accept donations from lobbyists or PACs and will not enter into any sponsorship agreements with individuals or corporations, said Whisenant.

In an opinion piece on The Hill’s Congress Blog earlier this week, author Ritch K. Eich called for scaled-back inauguration celebrations in a time of economic uncertainly, growing income gaps and the looming “fiscal cliff.”

“I believe in tradition but I also believe in change and I submit that our domestic and world conditions and challenges are so grave today to suggest continuing only the tradition of the swearing-in ceremony, the inaugural address, luncheon and national day of service the preceding day and jettisoning the rest,” wrote Eich.

The celebrations won’t be as extensive they were as four years ago. The events will include a parade, but there will not be a concert on the National Mall, as there was in 2009, and there will be fewer inaugural balls. Inauguration festivities will kick off with a National Day of Service on Saturday, Jan. 19.

Before the marching bands start to play and dancing shoes come on, the Architect of the Capitol is aiming for a glitch-free ceremony. But all the planning in the world can’t make the sun shine. Ayers’s “biggest anxiety” is the weather, and snow is the worst kind. 

“Snow is bad for us,” Ayers said. “Especially if there is a considerable snow storm the night before the inauguration, we have to then implement our snow removal plan and it takes hundreds of people to get all of that snow off the platform, off the chairs, off the sidewalks, off the streets to enable the platform to be ready for occupancy.”

He pointed out that snow presents a particular problem, because it needs to be physically removed from the area. The last time the event was impacted by snow was President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, in 2005.

“For me a successful inauguration is one where we are prepared in advance ... the inauguration goes off without any security or operational events, none of our equipment malfunctions or goes wrong, we don’t have to use back-up equipment and the president moves on to the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on time,” said Ayers. "And no snow."